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May 28, 2009

Oxford Regional Preview

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No. 3 Seed Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Record: 39-18 (21-8 in the Sunbelt Conference)

First-round opponent: Missouri Tigers, Friday May 29, 3 p.m.

How the Hilltoppers made the NCAA Tournament: Western Kentucky enters the tournament with the program's first ever at-large bid. The Hilltoppers won a share of the Sun Belt regular season championship, but the University of Louisiana at Monroe ousted them before the conference championship game. This marks the Hilltoppers fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament and the first time in history they will make back-to-back appearances. Western Kentucky finished the year with an R.P.I. of 44.

The Hilltoppers coach: Chris Finwood has been behind the helm for the past four years for Western Kentucky and has led his team to half of the program's four NCAA Tournament appearances. Finwood made an instant impact in his first season by leading the team to ten more conference wins than the previous year, which marked the biggest one-year improvement in the history of the conference. Finwood made his way to Western Kentucky after being an assistant coach at Auburn where they participated in three regionals. The coach is defensive-minded and oversaw a defense at Auburn that posted the two best fielding percentages in school history. He worked his magic again this season leading the Hilltoppers to the best fielding percentage in the Sun Belt.

Hilltoppers on the mound: The Western Kentucky pitching staff has a combined E.R.A. of 5.40 and is anchored by Matt Hightower. Hightower (3.92, 6-3) will most likely get the start against the Tigers and earned first-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors. In eighty innings, Hightower held opponents to a .271 batting average and had 54 strikeouts. Matt Ridings (5.06, 7-2) earned second-team conference honors and provides Finwood with a steady one-two punch.

Hilltoppers at the plate: As a team, the Hilltoppers are statistically the best hitting team in the regional. They have a .331 batting average, which includes eight batters hitting over .300. Western Kentucky puts up nearly nine runs a game, and they are led by Wade Gaynor and Chad Cregar. Both sluggers earned first-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors. Gaynor leads the team with 22 home runs, 19 doubles and 70 R.B.I. Cregar leads the team in runs (60) and has 17 home runs of his own.


No. 1 Seed Ole Miss Rebels

Record: 40-17 (20-10 in the SEC)

First-round opponent: Monmouth Hawks, Friday May 29, 7 p.m.

How the Rebels made the NCAA Tournament: With their record and the level of competition in the SEC, the No. 9 Rebels were a no-doubter to be in the tournament. This will be the fifth time in sixth years that Ole Miss will host a NCAA Regional. The Rebels cruised through the season and won the regular season championship before being eliminated from the SEC Tournament by the Florida Gators. This marks the second-straight year the Rebels and Tigers appear in the same regional and both teams enter the tournament for the seventh-straight season. Each team won a game last season in the Coral Gables Regional.

The Rebels coach: Mike Bianco took over as the Ole Miss head coach on June 7, 2000. In nine seasons with the Rebels, he has taken his team to the post-season eight times, including hosting four-straight Regionals and advancing to three-straight Super Regionals. Between 2005-2007, the Rebels posted three-straight 40-win seasons, the first time in school history. Ole Miss has played in the Regional Championship game each of the past four seasons.

Rebels on the mound: The Rebels have a team E.R.A. of just above four, which is the best of any of the team in this regional. They are led by closer-turned-starter Scott Bittle. Bittle became a starter at the end of March and since then has posted a 4-0 record with an E.R.A. of 1.29, which includes 49 strikeouts and just 11 walks. Bittle has been struggling with shoulder issues, however, and might not be the force he was during the regular season. Bittle is joined by Friday night starter Drew Pomeranz. Pomeranz (4.16, 6-4) was named to the All-SEC team and leads the Rebels with 88 strikeouts.

Rebels at the plate: The Rebels also have a plethora of consistent hitters to compliment their pitching staff. Ole Miss is batting .315 as a team and currently has nine players hitting over .300 on the season, which includes three batters hitting over .330. Outfielder Jordan Henry led the SEC in steals (34) and walks (50). Henry also leads his team in runs (65) and on-base percentage (.477). Although the Rebels do not hit for much power, Kyle Henson leads the team with eight home runs on the season.

No. 4 Seed Monmouth Hawks

Record: 33-23 (15-11 in the Northeast Conference)

First-round opponent: Ole Miss Rebels, Friday May 29, 7 p.m.

How the Hawks made the NCAA Tournament: Monmouth enters the tournament as an automatic qualifier out of the Northeast Conference. The Hawks defeated Sacred Heart to win their fourth conference title, and it will be their fourth appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Hawks are the only team from their conference to make the tournament and have an R.P.I. of 177. Monmouth University is located in West Long Branch, NJ.

The Hawks coach: Dean Ehehalt has been in charge at Monmouth for 16 years, and he is the winningest coach in Northeast Conference history. Ehehalt is a three-time winner of the NEC Coach of the Year, but has been unsuccessful in post-season play. Monmouth is 0-6 in the NCAA Tournament and will start off against the top-seeded Rebels on Friday.

Hawks on the mound: The Hawks pitching staff has a combined E.R.A. of 5.32 and are led by junior Ryan Buch. Buch has been an impact player for the Hawks since he entered college. As a freshman, he set a new freshman record with nine wins. Entering Friday, Buch (4.11, 7-4) leads the team with 87 strikeouts but also gave up the most walks with 31. Look for lefty Nick McNamara to lead the charge out of the bullpen. He has made 19 appearances and has three wins on the season.

Hawks at the plate: As a team, Monmouth finished their season with a .323 batting average and score close to eight runs a game. The Hawks have six batters with an average over .300 and are led by power-hitting senior Paul Bottigliero. Bottigliero leads the team in home runs (17), R.B.I. (58) and doubles (16). Chris Collazo looks to jump-start their offense with a batting average close to .400 on the year. He has the most at-bats for the Hawks and the highest on-base percentage.

No one covers Tiger athletics like PowerMizzou.com. This year, we've added baseball coverage to our top-notch football and basketball beats. To follow the Tigers year-round, sign up today to start your Free Seven-Day Trial.



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